Bulgarian President Rumen Radev’s and Prime Minister Boyko Borissov’s recent visits to Russia have fueled speculation that Sofia may be turning its back on the West and aligning with Moscow. Bulgaria, which is a European Union member state, is dependent on Russian gas, and there has even been talk of reviving Bulgaria’s Belene nuclear power plant project using Russian technology. Economic ties aside, Bulgaria and Russia also have much in common historically, linguistically and culturally. This longstanding relationship has made Bulgaria reluctant to freeze out Moscow since joining NATO and the EU.
Parts of Bulgaria’s political establishment insist the country could act as a mediator between Russia and the West, or at least capitalize on its good ties with Moscow. It’s in this context that the name of Bulgaria’s World War II-era leader, Czar Boris III, often comes up. In 1942, he allegedly told Nazi Germany’s foreign minister, Joachim von Ribbentrop, that “[Bulgaria] will always be on Germany’s side and never against Russia.”
Yet perpetually citing this problematic ― and historically unverified ― quote belies the true nature of the EU. The bloc is not, as the quote may be used to imply, a product of great power politics, thrust onto others by Germany, France, the United States or Russia. Indeed, Bulgaria is not being forced to ally with one side or another, unlike in World War II, when Boris III found himself weighing up whether German or Russian troops presented the greater threat to his country.
The EU is about voluntarily engaging in European integration. No country was ever forced to join the bloc, and some member states are even reluctant to enlarge it. Countries are also free to leave, as Brexit demonstrates.